How to change unhelpful thinking styles: part one

How to stop overthinking: Detached mindfulness

We all over-think from time to time. Some of us overthink nearly everything and might be experiencing clinical levels of anxiety, while some of us might only over-think in response to certain situations (dwelling on that awkward conversation you had with a work colleague yesterday or that time you tripped up the stairs getting on the bus).  We all have those thoughts, beliefs and memories that can hook us in, pull us away from the present moment and impact on our mood.

Detached mindfulness is a way of stepping back from and interrupting overthinking.

Detached mindfulness involves changing the way you relate to your thoughts, beliefs, images, pictures, and memories, and developing flexible control of your attention. It has two separate features: mindfulness, and detachment.

The mindfulness part refers to:

  • being aware of your internal experiences (i.e., thoughts, beliefs, images and memories) and,
  • being able to flexibly focus attention on these experiences without being hooked into anyone of them.

The detachment part refers to:

  • being able to detach from further engagement with the inner events (e.g., thoughts, beliefs)
  • not judge the inner experiences
  • abandoning attempts to suppress/control unwanted thoughts or memories.
  • overtime developing a sense of yourself as being separate from your thoughts and shifting to being a conscious observer of your inner experiences.

Simply put, Detached mindfulness is a way of relating to and experiencing your inner events as merely events in your mind that do not need to be responded to with further thinking or actions.

To get a sense of what detached mindfulness feels like have a go at the activities below (adapted from Metacognitive Therapy for Anxiety and Depression by Adrian Wells, 2009).

The tiger task

In this task, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and bring to mind an image of a tiger. Conjure up an image of a tiger. Do not attempt to influence of change the image in any way. Just watch the image and the tiger’s behaviour. The tiger may move, but don’t make it move. The tiger may yawn, but don’t make it yawn. The tiger may flick its tail, but don’t make it do that. Just observe how the tiger has its own behaviour. Just watch the image and see how the tiger is simply a thought in your mind, that it is separate from you and has behaviour all of its own.


Applying detached mindfulness to triggers of overthinking

Imagine a worry trigger like “what if I perform poorly at my new job?” pops into your mind.  If you were responding reactively and engaging in attempts to cope with this thought you might:

  • follow the thought down the rabbit hole and go on to think “I’ll be let go… I won’t be able to pay my mortgage…I’ll lose may house”,
  • then go onto plan how you will cope if the imagined future scenario eventuates,
  • possibly attempt to supress thoughts about work, finances and paying the mortgage,
  • or seek reassurance from a partner, friend or work colleague, and
  • attempt to control your thoughts by thinking only positive thoughts.

However, if you were responding to this same thought using detached mindfulness you might:

  • observe the initial triggering thought and step back from it in your mind
  • see yourself as separate from that thought by noticing where you are in relation to the thought, and observe the thought in a detached way.
  • allow the thought to come and go on its own, like clouds passing in the sky.

Of course, responding to distressing inner experiences with detached mindfulness is easier said than done. Especially because worry often convinces us that worry is useful, which we can see in commonly held beliefs like:

  • worrying helps me to prepare for all case scenarios
  • worrying prepares me for the worst so I won’t be disappointed
  • worrying helps me solve problems
  • worrying can help me understand how I got here and therefore find a way out of the situation.
  • worrying will help me feel better.

If you endorsed any of the above beliefs about worry or feel as though your thinking is out of control, why not give us a call today and take that first step towards learning to not get caught up in your thinking.  

Written by Dr Gemma Healey, Clinical Psychology Registrar

More information

If you would like to learn more about identifying and changing unhelpful thinking styles or to book an appointment with Dr Gemma Healey or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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